I first was drawn to Miradi Wild because of its mission, which connects travelers to real, ongoing conservation projects around the world. But, quickly became even more curious by Founder Erica Hermsen and her story. I greatly enjoy getting to know organizations with powerhouse, young women behind them. As we get to know each other, there are always common themes woven into their stories that provide inspiration. Of course passion for their cause is abundant. But more importantly, there is always a moment in time where their passion takes a practical turn and they see a clear path to make change in the world. Erica Hermsen is no exception. She leaped in feet first, and founded Miradi Wild in 2014. Conservation projects are the cornerstone for everything the organization does, with Miradi literally meaning “project” in Swahili.
Let’s hear more from Erica Hermsen herself:
Tell us a little bit about yourself! What led you to study Conservation Biology and how did you get involved with Action for Cheetahs in Kenya?
As a child, I was fascinated with animals and loved being out in nature, which spurred me to pursue a degree in Environmental Studies once I entered college. As I became more aware of the ecological impacts of consumer societies, my passion to save our fragile planet’s remaining species and ecosystems blossomed into my life’s mission. I became a tour guide and educator at Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo and loved talking to people about saving the wild counterparts of the animals on exhibit; however, I soon realized I wanted to start working with local communities and wildlife issues in-situ. After starting my Master of Science degree in Conservation Biology at Antioch University New England, a friend connected me with recent Yale graduate Mary Wykstra, the founder and director of Action for Cheetahs in Kenya (ACK). Mary accepted me as an intern at her Kenya-based research center that summer and I fell in love with the country and ACK’s work. The next year (2012), I returned to Kenya and conducted my thesis research with ACK. After my time as a student with ACK, I took on the role of Volunteer and Outreach Coordinator with the organization to help further their mission of saving cheetahs through research, education, and awareness.
You have traveled around the world extensively. What moved you to start your organization in Africa specifically? What makes this continent special for you as a conservationist?
Before my trip to Kenya as a master’s student, my worldly travels were largely based on leisure. During my time with ACK, I was able to connect with the places I worked in and the people I worked with on a deeper level than if I were just passing through for a few days or weeks. I became involved in the local conservation issues by attending and presenting at stakeholder meetings with government officials, biologists, and community members. These experiences helped me to better understand specific wildlife issues and feel like a contributor to the solutions.
Although the majority of my time in Kenya was spent conducting research, I took several weeks off to embark on a formal safari with visiting family. During our trip, I witnessed the direct social and ecological impacts of tourism, and realized the power the industry wields (both negatively and positively) on the welfare of local communities, wildlife, and the environment. This observation helped me to recognize that tourism could be a valuable tool in creating positive change.
Due to my connection and experiences as a student and tourist in East Africa, Kenya served as a natural springboard to launch Miradi Wild’s initial programs. I look forward to expanding Miradi Wild’s conservation-travel programs to additional countries once the organization becomes more established.
You now are partnering with different conservation projects in order to connect travelers with these wonderful causes through Miradi Wild. What makes your organization different from others by doing this?
The foundation of Miradi Wild programs are built on my unique relationships with conservation and community organizations who are not associated with larger travel companies. Therefore, the exclusive invitation to participate in specific research, education, and service-based projects by these organizations is offered only to Miradi Wild travelers. Each participant has the opportunity to be intimately involved in real-world wildlife solutions, and to establish meaningful connections with the hard working people who are a part of each organization. My hope is that the experiences and relationships that Miradi Wild helps to foster will ultimately motivate each traveler to provide on-going support for conservation efforts long after they depart for home.
I love the fact that you are young women starting an organization with such a wonderful cause! What are some exciting things coming down the pipeline or some challenges that you are facing as you get Miradi Wild up and running to its full capacity?
Thank you! There are so many exciting aspects of launching this project, one of which is the opportunity to create relationships within the conservation community. One of our newer partners, Travelers Against Plastics (TAP), will help us create a program to eliminate disposable plastics (i.e. water bottles) from our tours. Miradi Wild is also working with ACK to market handicrafts made by Kenyan artisans, sales of which will benefit local livelihoods and cheetah conservation efforts. Other exciting opportunities this year include a fundraising event to build additional research tents at the Elephants and Bees camp, which will be used to house researchers as well as Miradi Wild participants.
As a young organization, the main challenge is garnering the interest of potential travelers in the face of large and well-known tourism companies. In addition, an experience with Miradi Wild is very hands-on and authentic, which may not appeal to everyone. Luckily, travelers are becoming more eco-conscious and aware of how their experiences impact the environment and local people, which may lead to increased interest in Miradi Wild programs.
Tell us about your flagship tour “Wildlife and Warriors” in partnership with Crooked Trails. How can people get involved? What can they expect?
The Wildlife and Warriors program combines the specialties of Miradi Wild (conservation-tourism) and our parent organization, Crooked Trails (community-based tourism) to create an exciting and incredibly unique travel experience in Kenya. The basic outline of the program includes multi-day experiences with two wildlife conservation organizations, excursions to national parks, and a homestay in a Maasai village. Participants will have the opportunity to live like a field biologist in the African bush while assisting in active conservation projects focused on saving cheetahs and elephants. Field work is balanced with full-day safaris in Amboseli and Tsavo National Parks with evenings at relaxing eco-lodges. The program is capped off with a four-day stay at a remote Maasai village, where travelers will be invited to participate in cultural activities such as traditional dances, language lessons, and Maasai Warrior demonstrations.
Participants can expect to feel enriched and fulfilled by being involved in the global community and contributing to important conservation efforts. Accommodations at the conservation field camps limit Miradi Wild tours to 6 travelers; however, this allows participants to have a more personal experience with the conservation and community organizations. Specific activities differ depending on each organization’s current active projects, but may include visits to local schools, conducting game counts (counting wildlife), checking camera traps, and building beehives for farmers. Due to the authenticity of the program, there may be occasions where lodgings may be rustic (i.e. pit toilets).
Interested parties can download the full itinerary and apply for the program by visiting www.miradiwild.org or http://crookedtrails.org/trips/kenya-wildlife-warriors. The majority of the program cost is tax-deductible and directly supports the wildlife/community partners.
What are some of the other prospective tours you are working on?
I’m currently working on a program that will involve experiences in additional destinations in Kenya, such as Maasai Mara, Lake Nakuru, and Samburu. Conservation partners in these areas include the Mara-Meru Cheetah Project, Soysambu Conservancy, and Ewaso Lions. In addition, the program will incorporate visits to local artisans where travelers can watch weavers, welders, and carvers perfect their craft all in the name of conservation.
For those who are traveling to Africa on their own – how can they travel in a more ethical and responsible way? What should they look for when choosing a safari outfitter? (If not able to attend Wildlife and Warriors of Course!)
Travelers to any country (or throughout our own!) can incorporate responsible practices by being sensitive to the ecosystems and cultures of which they visit. For example, stay on marked trails and roads to prevent soil erosion and vegetation depredation. Be respectful of wild or protected places by avoiding the urge to get off the path for a better vantage point, and allow the presence of mystery in nature. Avoid companies or excursions that exploit nature or local people by putting the needs of paying customers before the rights or values of the environment or communities. Practice “Leave No Trace” wherever you go, be kind to others along the way, and open your mind to cultures that differ from your own.
And lastly, what is an off-the-beaten location in Kenya that you would say is a “must see” or “life changing” for those traveling in Kenya?
Tsavo West National Park isn’t necessarily off the beaten path, but is a park that many visitors miss since it isn’t as famous as Maasai Mara or Amboseli. I found it to be the most magical place with its vast mountains, violet-red plains, and thick secretive forests. Mzima Springs, located deep inside the park, is a desert oasis where hippos and crocodiles float in sparkling pools and monkeys and parrots frolic in the surrounding forest canopy. A trip to any Kenyan park is a life-changer, as there are not many places left on Earth where the drama of nature can be seen playing out right in front of your eyes.
Erica Hermsen resides in Pleasanton, CA when not in Africa on conservation projects. You can learn more about Miradi Wild and their journeys and partner projects at www.miradiwild.org.
All photos credit E. Hermsen unless otherwise noted.